Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), which causes infection of the
lungs and breathing passages, is a major cause of respiratory illness in
In adults, it may only produce symptoms of a common cold, such as a
stuffy or runny nose, sore throat, mild headache, cough, fever, and a
general feeling of being ill. But in premature babies and kids with
diseases that affect the lungs, heart, or immune system, RSV infections
can lead to other more serious illnesses.
RSV is highly contagious and can be spread through droplets
containing the virus when someone coughs or sneezes. It also can live on
surfaces (such as countertops or doorknobs) and on hands and clothing,
so it can be easily spread when a person touches something contaminated.
RSV can spread rapidly through schools and childcare centers. Babies
often get it when older kids carry the virus home from school and pass
it to them. Almost all kids are infected with RSV at least once by the
time they're 2 years old.
RSV infections often occur in epidemics that last from late fall
through early spring. Respiratory illness caused by RSV - such as bronchiolitis or pneumonia - usually lasts about a week, but some cases may last several weeks.
Doctors typically diagnose RSV by taking a medical history and doing a
physical exam. Generally, in healthy kids it's not necessary to
distinguish RSV from a common cold. But if a child has other health
conditions, a doctor might want to make a specific diagnosis; in that
case, RSV is identified in nasal secretions collected either with a
cotton swab or by suction through a bulb syringe.
Because RSV can be easily spread by touching infected people or
surfaces, frequent hand washing is key in preventing its transmission.
Try to wash your hands after having any contact with someone who has
cold symptoms. And keep your school-age child with a cold away from
younger siblings - particularly infants - until the symptoms pass.
To prevent serious RSV-related respiratory disease, at-risk infants
can be given a monthly injection of a medication consisting of RSV
antibodies during peak RSV season (roughly November to April). Because
its protection is short-lived, it has to be given in subsequent years
until the child is no longer at high risk for severe RSV infection. Ask
the doctor if your child is considered high risk.